Category Archives: Water

Lancang River Fishing

A view of  the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

A view of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan Province, China.

The first thing that grabbed our attention as we stepped off the bus in the tiny roadside community of Jinglin River Bridge was the richness of the Lancang’s surreal blue colour. Though we had noted the changing characteristics of the river since entering China, the narrow and swift flowing aquamarine channel at the bottom of a deep mountain valley was so utterly different to the lazy brown Mekong that we had known for the last year as to be nearly unrecognizable.

Later we would learn that the unnatural colour of the river was largely due to the loss of sediment because of China’s hydropower dams along the Lancang. But in our initial ignorance we did little but stand and stare down at the alien waterway, speechless as we took in the vast landscape.

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, CHina

A boat floats on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China

The naming of Jinglin River Bridge was both literal and appropriate. Derived from the blending of Jinggu, the name of the county the town was located in, and Lancang, the community was visually defined by the impressively stark concrete bridges that spanned the river in several places. Though utilitarian and without ornament, the bridges were a reminder of the scope and scale of China’s infrastructural engineering projects. In Laos or Cambodia, with their aging and potholed highways, such roadworks would have been among the best in the country; but in China, even in an out of the way backwater, they were unremarkable.

We had stopped in Jinglin for two reasons. The first was geographical: this was the only major crossing point over the Lancang between the larger cities of Pu’er and Lincang, and the only route to access Yunnan’s mountainous north without suffering a lengthy detour to the east. The second reason was less practical and more hypothetical. Since arriving in China, we had yet to meet anyone intimately or directly engaging with the Lancang on a daily basis.

We had encountered tourists and retirees who enjoyed the river as a source of relaxation, farmers who irrigated their crops with its waters, and sand dredgers who plied its currents on immense metal hulks to bring its sandy bed to the surface, but none of the artisanal fishermen that had been so prevalent in the lower Mekong basin. If we were going to find such people in Yunnan, we reasoned, what better place to start looking than in a small village that had incorporated the river into its name?

A Revolutionary Welcome

“This revolutionary area welcomes you!” the Mandarin characters carved into the side of a large stone monument proclaimed in a historic reminder of the town’s political past.

Once the site of an important salt refinery, the area had been ground zero for the rising wave of discontentment among China’s lower classes over the inequality of wealth between themselves and their Kuomintang rulers. When the prices of salt rose to unaffordable levels, the rural poor formed themselves into small Communist militant groups which would later coalesce under Mao and take part in the Cultural Revolution that changed China’s political system forever.

Now, however, there were no signs of insurrection or rebellion, and the memories of those turbulent times were evidenced only in stone. It was the smell of fish, not class warfare, that permeated the morning air as we searched for a path down the steep mountain valley to the Lancang below.

A small market was spread out along the highway, offering travellers an opportunity to pick up fresh seafood before reaching their ultimate destinations, and the gathering of their parked cars gave the false impression of bustle to the town that was only transitory. The fish were live, splashing feebly in a few centimetres of water at the bottom of plastic buckets, and so we knew that fishermen could not be too far away.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Customers stop at a road side fish market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors sort their catch at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fish hang to dry at a local market near the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When we eventually found our way down to the river’s edge, however, the fishing boats that lined the banks were devoid of crew or cargo. Instead we found a family of local tourists who had stopped to enjoy a picnic and some recreational fishing on the Lancang.

“I don’t really catch anything,” the father of the family said when we asked about his fishing rod, “it’s just for fun. If you want to see real fishermen, you could try coming back in the morning.” His teenage son, seemingly embarrassed by his father’s repeated attempts to offer us cigarettes and food, hurried away down the beach so as to not be drawn into the conversation. Having both survived the terrible awkwardness of being teenage boys, we empathized with his unease and left the family to their lunch.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fish vendors spread their catch out to dry at a local market in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen's morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A driver prepares to deliver fishermen’s morning catch to local market in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

“The fishermen leave early in the morning,” 52-year-old Zhang Yun said in front of his hotel. We had left the river banks and returned to the town to see if someone could introduce us to an active commercial fisherman, and had gotten lucky when we met Zhang.

“They only started fishing here three years ago,” he continued. “Before the dam [near Simaogangzhen] was built the river moved too fast. 20 years ago if you jumped in here the currents would carry you away. It has changed a lot.” With that he pulled a cell phone from his pocket and made a call to a friend.

“Go to the river early tomorrow morning and he will meet you there,” Zhang said. “He can take you fishing.”

Unnatural Stilness

Though the sky was still dark and the rising sun obscured by the high valley walls, the banks of the Lancang were a hive of activity compared to the previous afternoon. Boats were already returning from the day’s fishing and the small crews worked together to weigh and sort their catch.

Fishermen weigh their morning's catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen weigh their morning’s catch before delivering it to market on a Lancang (Mekong) tributary in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

Fishermen haul their catch ashore on a Lancang (Mekong) river tributary in Jinglin, Yunan province, China.

“This has only been possible since the dam,” a husband-and-wife fishing team told us as they hefted baskets of tiny shrimp and whitefish onto a set of digital scales, confirming what Zhang had said the previous day. “Before [the dam] you couldn’t catch anything. We worked as sugar cane famers, but this is better money. We work for two or three hours and can get 30kg of shrimp a day and sell them for 24 Yuan per kilo.”

If what they said was accurate, a morning’s fishing could earn the couple more than $100 USD – vastly more than the small scale river fishermen we had encountered earlier in our journey who often survived on just a few dollars a day.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen checks his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

A fishermen pulls in his net on a tributary of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinglin, Yunan, China.

When Su Youdong, the fisherman Zhang Yun had called for us the day before, arrived at the river’s edge, the sun had not yet risen high enough to lessen the bite of the morning chill. As we boarded his boat to set out on the Lancang, the cold metal benches stung our legs through the fabric of our pants. An ethereal mist blanketed the water, and the mountains rose on both sides of the river valley to create a sense of place that felt prehistoric. Only the sound of the boat engine and the presence of the concrete bridges far overhead reminded us of the modern world.

“I’ve been fishing since the dam was built,” Su said as he worked the outboard motor to manoeuvre around unseen nets submerged just under the river’s surface. “I’ve got ten nets in the river, and I still catch plenty of fish. But the rare and expensive species are gone – now I catch mainly common species, like tilapia and carp. There are more and more people fishing here, so we catch less.”

As Su’s boat navigated the Lancang, there seemed to be fishing vessels around every bend. But if there was any animosity between fishermen over the dwindling species diversity, they did not express it. Instead they called out to each other cheerfully and chatted in passing about the quality and quantity of their catches.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

Fishermen take a break to smoke tobacco through a water pipe near Jinglin, Yunan, China.

This was not a traditional source of livelihood, passed down through the generations as was the case for families on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake or near the Khone waterfalls and 4000 Islands of southern Laos. This was a recent and unnatural boom made possible by the taming of the river’s currents by hydroelectric dams, and local residents were taking advantage of the bonanza while it lasted. We knew from previous conversations with biologists that dams almost always disrupted the migration of river fish and that once depleted it was unlikely that stocks in the area would rebound. But for now, Su and his friends were enjoying the unexpected boon and not dwelling on thoughts of the future.

This would be the first and only time we encountered Lancang river fishing in China on any sort of scale, and we knew that if we returned in ten years it was unlikely that this pop-up industry would still be thriving. In China, we were continually learning, the Lancang was not a source of primary livelihood for individual families, but rather a force to be tamed for the development of the nation.

But from where we sat, watching the fishermen pull their nets from the piercing blue water, that knowledge didn’t make the landscape any less beautiful.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , |

Bananas on the Lancang

Passengers board a small ferry that moves between Simaogangzhen and Mengkwang villages.

Passengers board a small ferry that moves between Simaogangzhen and Mengkwang villages.

When we piled into the tiny boat that shuttled passengers across the Lancang between Simaogang and Mengkwang villages, we thought we were setting out for a walk in the mountains. But as had happened so often on this journey, the day had other plans for us.

“We’re all going to pick bananas,” one of the other passengers said, “why don’t you join us?”

We’d seen the vast plantations lining the river banks during the several days we’d spend documenting the process of dredging sand from the Lancang, and had already decided to have a look at them eventually, but the unexpected invitation changed our timeline.

We could see lengths of pipe running from the rows of banana trees to the river below, so we knew that there was a connection between the water and fruit. And since we’d decided at the project’s inception that we would remain flexible to whatever opportunities presented themselves and not adhere too rigidly to any sort of schedule, accepting the invitation seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

Picking Season

“We can only pick for half the year,” a worker said as we walked through the outskirts of the plantation, “so you came at a good time.”

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

Banana factory workers rise in the early morning to begin work in the village of Mengkwang, along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river. Yunan, China.

After another 10 minutes of walking, the trees parted to reveal a sheet metal shed that served as a bunk house for workers that had no homes in the nearby village. The sun was still not yet fully above the horizon, and once the sleepy workers had gotten over their surprise at seeing two foreigners emerge out of the gloom, they returned to their morning routines. Some brushed their teeth in silence using water from a tap that gushed fresh mountain spring water (water from the Lancang was good for watering crops, they said, but too dirty for human consumption) while others sat wrapped in blankets sipping tea and eating steamed dumplings. The atmosphere was more like a large extended family waking in their shared house than a job site, and it seemed as though this group had been together for some time.

“This is collective work,” said a young manager named Wang Jing. “We move between plantations when there is picking [to be done], and we get paid based on how many trucks we can fill in a day. The price per truck is 100 Yuan (around $15 USD at current rates), and in a good day we can do 1.5 trucks.”

By 8 a.m. the morning’s eating and grooming had finished. A large open topped transport truck reversed into the clearing and the whole team sprang into action, loading it with tightly wrapped bundles of straw from a storage building attached to their living quarters.

Workers load bundles of insulation into a truck in Magkwang village, Yunan, China. The insulation will be used to keep picked bananas warm during transportation.

Workers load bundles of insulation into a truck in Magkwang village, Yunan, China. The insulation will be used to keep picked bananas warm during transportation.

“It’s cold now, so we have to cover the bananas when they are transported,” Wang said in explanation.

Once the truck had been filled with enough straw, the workers jumped on board for the ride to the plantation. A few minutes later, no one seeming to mind being tossed around violently as the vehicle bounced over holes in the narrow dirt road, the truck arrived at the plantation’s central packing house and the team spread out to their various stations.

The pickers, exclusively men who wore military style camouflage jackets, fanned out into the tree line and we struggled to keep up, stumbling repeatedly on the uneven ground. The trees were heavy with bananas, the bunches wrapped in layers of insulation and plastic to keep them protected from the cold and hungry insects. The fruits inside were perfect looking (albeit not yet ripe), the text book image of what a banana should be shaped like.

By contrast, those few bunches that were not wrapped in the plastic had been ruined by the winter air. Shrivelled and pathetic looking, mottled with black spots, and a fraction of the size, they did not look fit for the shelves of the world’s supermarkets and the demanding preferences of the modern shopper.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village.

Though the mechanics of getting the bananas from the trees were simple, the strength and stamina of the pickers was impressive. For every 10 men, one was equipped with long shaft of wood tipped with a dangerous looking curved blade. The men readied themselves under the low-hanging bunches, testing the weight on their shoulders, and then called out for a cutter who would appear instantly to hack deftly at the tree until the fruit fell free. Pausing only for a moment to get their balance, the men sped away with the 25kg loads, showing no outward signs of strain.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker chops a bunch of bananas from a tree using a curved blade attached to a pole.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village.

Workers harvest bananas on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker slides bunches of bananas along a rail that leads to a nearby packhorse.

A network of metal arches joined by a greased rail snaked through the plantation, and the senior man on the crew stood by with inverted hooks mounted to a base of small wheels that fitted onto the track. One by one the men attached the heavy bunches to the hooks and after hearing a monosyllabic bark from their foreman, let their burdens drop to sway beneath the rail. Periodically the bunches were pushed forwards along the track, which wound its way through the rows of trees until eventually reaching the packing shed.

Stopping once an hour for a five minute cigarette break, and for an hour at lunch, the team otherwise worked without interruption from sunrise to sunset. As we rarely lifted anything heavier than a camera for any length of time, we were more than a little impressed by their endurance.

Artificial Perfection and the Cycle of Trade

As the bananas arrived at the pack house, the place buzzed with activity. In one corner a group of young women worked robotically to assemble cardboard boxes that would hold the bananas for their trip to market, wielding their industrial tape guns with practiced speed. The bulk of people, however, had formed into an assembly line to process and pack the fruit before loading it onto a waiting truck.

Workers unload bunches of bananas to be divided and given a chemical ripening bath.

Workers unload bunches of bananas to be divided and given a chemical ripening bath.

As soon as the bananas were pulled from the track, they were set upon by knife-wielding workers who hacked the bunches into manageable sections. These were passed down the line to others who had donned thick rubber gloves before submerging them in a noxious grey-tinted chemical bath.

“It makes them turn yellow,” Gao Yanhong, the owner of the factory had told us after seeing our confusion. We’d watched several men that morning empty packets of an unknown powder into the tubs, but hadn’t understood their purpose until now. As with most fruit destined for far away consumption, the bananas were picked prematurely and were still a deep green colour. But green bananas are harder to sell than vibrant yellow ones, and the chemicals ensured that by the time they reached the urban supermarkets near Beijing they would have transformed to meet the taste of buyers.

Workers add a chemical mixture to water on a plantation near Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. The mixture causes freshly picked bananas to ripen unaturally quickly so they are ready for sale by the time they reach market.

Workers add a chemical mixture to water on a plantation near Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. The mixture causes freshly picked bananas to ripen unaturally quickly so they are ready for sale by the time they reach market.

Bananas are given a chemical bath to speed up the ripening process on a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Bananas are given a chemical bath to speed up the ripening process.

While we too were guilty of preferring yellow bananas to green ones, and had come to expect near perfection from the produce we bought, this was a part of the agricultural process that we wished we had not seen. We had no idea what chemicals were being used, but we resolved wash our fruit more carefully in the future.

Shining and wet from their ripening bath, the bananas were then placed into boxes bearing the elephant logo of the fruit company and stacked in the bed of the truck. When full, five or six hours later, the truck would depart for the megacities of the east.

Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas at a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas at a plantation in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Workers assemble cardboard boxes to be filled with bananas.

Workers load collapsed cardboard banana boxes on to a truck in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. They will be assembled and packed at a nearby fruit processing facility.

Workers load collapsed cardboard banana boxes on to a truck in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China. They will be assembled and packed at a nearby fruit processing facility.

A worker loads packed boxes of bananas on a truck to be shipped to market in Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

A worker loads packed boxes of bananas on a truck to be shipped to markets.

In fact, the cycle of transport was surprisingly complex. These bananas, which began their life in the small village of Mengkwang, watered by the blue-grey water of the Lancang, were destined for Shanxi province, located just to the west of Beijing, nearly 3000 km away. Once the bananas were offloaded in Shanxi, the truck was refilled with apples, which do not grow well in the hotter provinces to the southwest. Then, 1200km to the south, the apples were sold in Hunan province and the truck loaded once again, this time with oranges. The oranges then travelled more than 1300km to Kunming, the largest city in Yunnan province, where the cold winters prevented the large-scale growing of citrus fruits. With this cargo safely offloaded, the truck drivers would then collect local mail from the post offices of Kunming before returning once again to Mengkwang to start the cycle over again.

The Banana plantations of Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

The Banana plantations of Mengkwang village, Yunan, China.

Though perhaps this process was nothing out of the ordinary in the modern age of globalization and international trade, as we sat under the shade of a banana tree on the banks of the Lancang, it seemed incredible nevertheless.

Moving into the future, we resolved, we needed to be more cognizant of the incredible journeys our food underwent before reaching our tables. That, and to always wash our fruit.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , |

Dredging the Lancang

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang.

In the golden light of dawn the rusted bolts and gears of the ship’s aging crane screamed in protest as load after load of wet Lancang sand was lifted into the hold of the dredging barges. All along the waterfront of the small town of Simaogang dredgers of differing sizes worked the river’s banks. From atop a concrete wall high above the thrum, the company’s owner, Mr. Shen, watched his fleet begin another day.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Mr Shen (left) surveys his dredging fleet.

The decision to visit Simaogang, like so many we had made during the production of A River’s Tail, was made more or less at random. We had left the major city of Jinghong so we could follow the Lancang north towards the border of the Tibetan autonomous region, but among the many towns that lined the banks of the river in Yunnan province we had been at a loss for where to go. Online searches had given us little insight into which would be the most suitable places to learn about contemporary issues facing the river, and so we had settled on Simaogang simply because a decision had to be made.

After a day of travel on a series of local busses, we reached the small town and headed to the river to see if our decision had been a good one.

We’d already seen the potential effects that sand dredging could have on riparian communities when we’d visited a Cambodian village that was literally dropping into the Mekong one meter at a time, so when we saw the dredgers arrayed before us in Simaogang, we knew we had found a story.

Sunup to Sundown

As the sun rose at 8 a.m. (all of China operates under the same time zone as Beijing, resulting in especially late mornings in the country’s western provinces), workers gathered at the river’s edge to sip tea and chat before taking to their boats. Many had their hoods drawn tightly around their faces to ward off the morning chill, most chain smoking and not yet fully awake.

Sand dredgers try to keep warm before the day's work begins in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers try to keep warm before the day’s work begins in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

The captain of a sand dredging vessel mans the cockpit in the early morning in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.  The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

The captain of a sand dredging vessel mans the cockpit in the early morning.

The process of dredging the Lancang’s sand was a relatively simple one. Whether by sucking the sand from the river bottom through snaking lengths of piping or simply lifting it up between the teeth of metal buckets, the methods employed by the crew of Mr. Shen’s boats to get sand out of the water and onto land were little more than the industrial manifestation of a playing child’s imagination.

At a signal from Mr. Shen, the day’s work began. Those standing on the river banks climbed aboard their vessels and moved below decks to start diesel engines that rumbled to life, shattering the morning quiet. The largest of the dredgers slipped their mooring lines and reversed slowly into deeper water while smaller boats stayed close to land, their cranes swinging in and out of the water with practiced speed.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A supervisor shouts instructions to boat crews from the shore.

Sand dredgers line the shore of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Workers move across their boats.

Huge conveyor belts mounted on steel dollies were shifted into position until they overlapped perfectly, creating a continuous moving pathway from ship to shore. Teams of two used long metal shovels to feed the sand accumulating in the open air holds onto the first belt in the chain. The belts were angled upwards at roughly 40 degrees, and along them the sand travelled into the air until reaching the terminus and falling 10 meters below to the next belt.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Sand dredgers work along the banks of the Lancang (Mekong) river in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

At the end of the chain the sand was piled in great mounds, cascading down the sides in a series of endless avalanches. A steady stream of motley vehicles – from full sized dump trucks to small tractors with homemade buckets welded to their chassis – queued along the wharf awaiting their turn to be filled with sand by the single ceaselessly working bulldozer.

Mr. Shen paced along the waterfront throughout the day, supervising the operation and ordering adjustments to the position of the conveyor belts when necessary. Apart from a short break for noodles and tea at midday, the work continued uninterrupted until the sun set at 7p.m.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Conveyor belts move sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A man shovels spilled sand onto a conveyor belts which moves sand from the dredging boats to the shore for drying.

Trucks are loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

Trucks are loaded with dredged sand.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand.

The workers were not locals. Most were, like Mr. Shen, from Kunming – 500km to the northeast – and so had no close friends or family in Simaogang apart from their fellow labourers. The small rooms they lived in, while fairly well built and tidy, were not exactly homely and so the men (the operation employed no women save a single cook) spent most of their free time in the communal dining area drinking tea or clustered around a shared mahjong table.

At night most ventured into the town to play pool or drink a few beers, but the tiny town did not offer much in the way of nightlife. When we asked the men how they felt about living and working away from their families, the company’s accountant spoke for the group: “It’s a good job and it is only 6 hours back to Kunming. I used to work in Laos, and that was much further.”

The crew of a sand dredging vessel relax by playing pool at the end of their workday in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

The crew of a sand dredging vessel relax by playing pool at the end of their workday.

We left the men to their pool and smoking, knowing that we would see them all again the next morning when the dredging began anew.

Outpacing Demand

Sand, one of the planets most unglamorous resources, is something most people pay little attention to. It is unremarkable to look at and seemingly everywhere in great quantities and so its importance is often overlooked. But without sand, there can be no concrete, and without concrete, there are no new apartment buildings for the world’s increasingly urbanized population to live in. And contrary to to how it may seem while sitting on the a beach, it is not available in limitless supply. It is a finite resource like any other and it must be collected from somewhere before it reaches the world’s construction sites.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand in the town of Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A truck is loaded with dredged sand on the banks of the Lancang.

“Sometimes the river moves very fast, and it is harder to collect the sand,” Mr. Shen said as he watched his ships perform the monotonous act of bringing the Lancang’s sand to the surface. The 53-year-old had worked in a wire factory in Kunming for most of his life before starting the dredging business several years earlier, seeing an opportunity to supply the building material so essential in a nation that has some of the highest rates of urban construction in the world.

With around a dozen vessels of varying sizes under his command, his company seemed to have grown incredibly quickly in its few years of existence. But Mr. Shen seemed reluctant to reveal how he had built such a substantial enterprise in such a short time on the savings of a factory worker, so we did not press him too heavily for this information. However he had done it, his ships were extracting more than 1500 tonnes of river sand each day, year round.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

A driver hauls a load of sand to a constrcution site in Simaogangzhen. The dredged sand is sold locally and to large scale construction sites in nearby major cities such as Kunming and Jinhong.

While some of this sand was needed for local construction purposes, most of it was transported to the regional capital, Jinghong, to fuel China’s massive housing and infrastructure building industries. However, Mr. Shen said, these sectors were slowing, and bringing his profits down with them.

Construction workers use sand dredged from the Lancang (Mekong) river to make concrete, which will be used to build a new road near Simaogangzhen, Yunan, China.

Construction workers use sand dredged from the Lancang (Mekong) river to make concrete, which will be used to build a new road.

“Two years ago a ton of sand used to sell for 40 Yuan (roughly $6 US), but now the price is just 24 Yuan. We used to ship it all by boat [along the Lancang] to Jinghong, but now there is no demand. I hope it will go back up after the new year.”

With ghost towns of hundreds of thousands of empty apartments sitting on the outskirts of many major cities, it was difficult to know when China’s construction market might rebound, but for the time being, Mr. Shen and his fleet would continue to bring the Lancang’s sand to market.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , |

Entering China: Where the Mekong Ends

Evening in the city of Jinghong Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Evening in the city of Jinghong.

A cold grey drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the plane at Jinghong international airport, the capital city of the Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture and the gateway to southwestern China. Despite a temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius, after months of tracing the Mekong river through the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, the chill bit through to our bones and we scrambled to pull jackets and scarves out of our luggage.

Our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, was waiting in the arrival hall. Possessing undergraduate and masters degrees in journalism, she was also a skilled photographer and her spoken English rivalled our own. We were in good hands.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong.

Before long we were bundled into a car and speeding along immaculate highways into the heart of the city. Having never worked in China before, we were simultaneously exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of what was to come.

The End of the Mekong

When we got our first glimpse of the river in Jinghong, it took a moment to process the fact that we were no longer looking at the Mekong. The Lancang river, as it is called in China, was physically the same body of water we had been following for nearly a year, but the change in name signalled that we had entered into a different (and the final) phase of the journey. And as we would learn over the course of our time in China, in many important ways this was a very different river to the sluggish waterway we had come to know so well.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

From atop an impressive cable-stayed bridge that spanned the Lancang to connect the two halves of Jinghong, we stopped to watch the river pass beneath. Cargo vessels pulled in and out of a nearby port, transporting trade goods to and from Laos to the south, while huge leisure ships drifted on the currents. These floating restaurants were some of the largest ships we had yet seen on our travels, further reinforcing that China’s relationship with the river was unique.

The swarms of water taxis that plied the floating markets in Vietnam were absent, and the omnipresent wooden fishing boats that dotted the river throughout Cambodia and Laos were nowhere to be seen. Even the water’s colour had changed perceptibly from the murky brown of the lower Mekong basin to a more pronounced blue that flowed with surprising speed.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

For the roughly 2000 km we had still to travel before reaching the river’s source on the Tibetan plateau, we would not see the Mekong again as we knew it.

A People’s River

As we walked along the banks of the Lancang, one thing felt familiar; the river served as a public gathering space; a place to socialize, exercise, and enjoy.

Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops overlooked a well maintained stone pathway, which in turn overlooked small communal farm plots that locals used, rent free, to grow vegetables and bananas. Joggers made use of the long, straight track, and more than a few times we noticed people walking backwards at full speed – a practice said to have originated in ancient China – which while supposedly being very effective at targeting seldom used muscles, was nearly impossible to watch with a straight face.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang.

Further along we left the water’s edge, lured to a small park by the sound of birdsong. Dozens of small cages hung from the trees that lined the public space and were inhabited each by a solitary huamei – a small Chinese thrush-sized bird most similar to a North American robin, but made distinctive by its spectacle-shaped eye markings. Groups of men stood in clusters, appreciating the birds according to some criteria that we did not understand, smoking furiously as they listened to their song. While the birds were certainly beautiful and the cages perfectly crafted from painted wood, seeing the jittery imprisoned animals gave us little joy.

Caged songbirds in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Caged songbirds in a public park.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park.

It wasn’t long before we started to attract considerable attention. Though Xishuangbanna was a popular destination for Chinese tourists, we hadn’t yet seen another foreign visitor, and the locals seemed excited to chat. Before we knew what was happening we were drawn into a group of men who asked us standard questions – where did we come from? How did we like China? – before thrusting large bamboo water pipes into our hands.

A cigarette was wedged into a small spout at the base of the pipe, and with much effort and a massive amount of lung power we were encouraged to haul repeatedly on the tube until we were coughing out great clouds of smoke. Though not unbearable, the experience was by no means pleasant, and made all the more difficult by the fact that our unshaven faces made it impossible to form a tight seal around the mouth of the pipe. After we each finished and entire cigarette in this fashion, lightheaded and dizzy, the men immediately tried to restart the process. Only by distracting them with our cameras did we manage to escape additional rounds.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park.

Fleeing to a nearby stone pier that extended a hundred meters into the Lancang, we noticed a pair of men emerging from the river. Though the air temperature was chilly by our standards, the water was nearly freezing, and we approached the men to compliment them on their toughness. “This isn’t cold,” one of them said proudly. “Where I come from [north of Beijing], it is much colder than this.” Wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit, he rolled a cigarette from loose tobacco he said he’d brought from his home province. Bundled as we were in thick fleece and thermal under layers, we felt decidedly un-tough.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

As the sun set we made our way to a stony beach where people were gathering to enjoy the evening light. Some waded into the water to take selfies, while others played with their children or talked on the phone.

One particularly friendly group of tourists who were skipping stones across the Lancang shouted an enthusiastic ni hao (hello) and beckoned us over. Once again we were reminded that temperature was relative: “We’ve been here for more than one month. We come here for the warmth and to get away from winter!”

Tourists gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Tourists gather along the Lancang.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

While we had left the Mekong behind to start our journey up the Lancang, in one way at least China was consistent with the other countries we had traveled through – be it known as the Mekong or Lancang, fast flowing or slow, blue or brown, the river attracted people. Regardless of name or geography, people were drawn to its banks.

A River’s Tail is a multi-year collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , |

The Power of Power

A family home in the the village of Khoc Khom. The family powers several small lights with a homemade water turbine. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A family home in the the village of Khoc Khom. The family powers several small lights with a homemade water turbine.

When the light turned on in Si Tach’s living room, the whole family paused what they were doing to watch the process. As he screwed in the bulb and the blueish light flickered and then lit the space, there was a general feeling of relief mixed with little bit of wonder at the magic of the technology. Over the four days that we spent in Khoc Kham village, each time this process was repeated the mood was the same.

It wasn’t that Si Tach and his family were members of some un-contacted hill tribe who were seeing electric lighting for the first time. They’d had power in the village for nearly a decade by the time we came to visit. But unlike Laotians living in cities who could simply flick a switch without much reason to think about where the current came from, the people in this remote mountain village had built their power grid from scratch and cared for it in the same way a farmer does his crops – constantly and attentively.

A woman and her baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

A woman and her baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

A woman with her newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A woman with her newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

With our time in Laos drawing to a close, we had travelled two hours up the Mekong by boat to reach Khoc Kham, hoping to gain some insight into the relationship between Laos’ remote communities and electricity. As the country works to transform itself into the battery of Southeast Asia, exporting power generated from the Mekong and its tributaries to its wealthier neighbours, we wanted to know what that meant for people like Si Tach who lived on the fringes of modernity.

These were people who hunted with slingshots and homemade muskets and hadn’t experienced electric light bulbs until well into the 21st century. Were they benefitting from the damming of the national waterways, either financially or in terms of infrastructure? How was the rush to develop natural resources affecting their traditional ways of life? What did the future hold for such communities?

Let There Be Light

“The first time I heard about this technology was from the people in the next village,” Si Tach told us in his living room after screwing in the single lightbulb. As there were still several hours of daylight left, the act seemed to serve more to prove to us that it worked than to provide needed light. “Before we used to use oil lamps, which were hard to see by. Now some of us can even watch TV.”

A man with his newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man with his newborn baby in the village of Khoc Kham.

Children play with spinning tops in the village of Khoc Kham.

Children play with spinning tops in the village of Khoc Kham.

A man builds a boat in the village of Khoc Kham, which is located on the banks of the Mekong river. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man builds a boat in the village of Khoc Kham, which is located on the banks of the Mekong river.

Considering there was not a single road or even a dirt path connecting Khoc Kham to Luang Prabang (the nearest city), the ability to read by electric light – let alone watch the news – was no small luxury.

Removing the bulb from its socket and wrapping it in a protective piece of cloth, Si Tach gestured for us to follow him. Only a few minutes had passed since we’d arrived in the village and sat down in his house, but already a sizeable group of villagers had gathered. With Si Tach in the lead and us trailing behind, the entire crowd set off along a jungle trail towards the sound of running water somewhere in the valley below. 20 minutes later we were standing on the banks of a small but swiftly flowing creek.

“I’m not sure where the idea came from,” Si Tach said by way of explanation, perhaps sensing that we didn’t fully understand what we were looking at. “The people in the next village said they heard it from the people in the village next to them, and those people said they learned it from the next village, and so on.”

Wherever the idea came from, it was a deceptively clever way of generating power with a minimum of technology. A single propeller spun in the current of the stream, which turned a long metal shaft that was connected to a small generator. In essence it was a boat engine working backwards.

A man turns on his water turbine as evening approaches in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A man turns on his water turbine as evening approaches in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

Residents of Khoc Kham gather around a broken water turbine, trying to figure out the mechanical issue.

Residents of Khoc Kham gather around a broken water turbine, trying to figure out the mechanical issue.

“At first there was only one of these in the village, and it was shared between two families,” Si Tach said. “People used to come to us and rent single lightbulbs for their houses and we would charge by the month. Now [ten years later] most families have their own.”

As night fell, the extent to which the generators had impacted life in Khoc Kham became apparent. A blue-tinted glow shone through the doorways and window cracks of nearly every home, and groups gathered under the bare bulbs. While the lights had made night time socializing a more pleasant experience, it was in the village’s cottage economy that the power of electricity was most felt.

“2-3 years ago I was using a lamp,” 57-year-old That Mee said, sitting cross legged on the floor of his one room home. “These lights have made a big difference. We make bamboo baskets to sell, and now it is possible to work at night.”

Xieng Pai, 54, is a shopkeeper in the village of Khoc Kham. He powers the light in his shop using a poratble water turbine. Having access to electricity allows him to keep his shop open longer than he could in the past.

Xieng Pai, 54, is a shopkeeper in the village of Khoc Kham. He powers the light in his shop using a poratble water turbine. Having access to electricity allows him to keep his shop open longer than he could in the past.

An elderly man cooks dinner under the light of an LED bulb powered by a portable water turbine in the village of Khoc Kham. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

An elderly man cooks dinner under the light of an LED bulb powered by a portable water turbine in the village of Khoc Kham.

In the village of Khoc Kham there are no street lights and villagers must use flashlights or small LED bulbs powered by water turbines in orde to see.

In the village of Khoc Kham there are no street lights and villagers must use flashlights or small LED bulbs powered by water turbines in orde to see.

Xieng Pai, a 54-year-old shopkeeper who lived around the corner echoed what Mee had said. “Having lights makes it possible to count money at night, so I can keep my shop open,” he said, in a tone that let us know how obvious and silly he thought our line of questioning was. And he was right, it was obvious: life was easier with lights.

A family who cannot afford a water turbine  uses oil lamps to light their home in Khoc Kham, Laos. The village is not connected to the main electrical grid and many residents operate their own turbines to power lights and sometimes small appliances.

A family who cannot afford a water turbine uses oil lamps to light their home.

The World Approaches

Waking on the floor of Si Tach’s living room under an expansive white mosquito net, the sounds and smells of cooking enticed us into movement. The breakfast spread, while an incredibly thoughtful gesture, was eclectic to say the least. Next to the usual fried meats and woven baskets of sticky rice we had come to love during our time in Laos was a selection of what must have represented all the imported foods available in the village. A tin of sardines in tomato sauce, bowls of Chinese instant noodles, a tube of Oreo cookies, packets of instant coffee mix, and several bottles of Mountain Dew.

Beyond making for a strange flavour combination, the meal reminded us that Khoc Kham did not have much interaction with the outside world. We were just the third group of non-Laotian outsiders to visit the village in living memory after a school-building missionary group and a team of Vietnamese engineers who had constructed their own concrete house in the village to use as a base of operations while they scouted the area for suitable dam-building locations. But we also knew that the outside world was coming to them weather they wanted it to or not. Once Mountain Dew appeared, the hydro-power survey teams could not be far behind.

A man prepares to reload his homemade shotgun near the village of Khoc Kham. The guns are used to hunt birds and other small game, though they are technically illegal.

A man prepares to reload his homemade shotgun near the village of Khoc Kham. The guns are used to hunt birds and other small game, though they are technically illegal.

A young man walks along a jungle path in the village of Khoc Kham, looking for birds to shoot with home made shotguns.

A young man walks along a jungle path in the village of Khoc Kham, looking for birds to shoot with home made shotguns.

Young men make bird calls in the village of Khoc Kham, hoping to lure birds out of hiding that they can shoot with homemade shotguns.

Young men make bird calls in the village of Khoc Kham, hoping to lure birds out of hiding that they can shoot with homemade shotguns.

Outside, another indicator of the approaching global economy greeted us in the form of a truly bizarre spectacle. Somehow during the previous night, a boatload of plastic animal masks had arrived in Khoc Kham and seemingly every child in the village had adopted the cartoon faces of rabbits and tigers.

“Before we were separated from the outside world and people just lived for themselves,” Si Tach said in explanation, sensing our confusion at the strange menagerie running through Khoc Kham’s dirt roads. “Now with the help of boat engines, we are connected to bigger villages that we can trade with.”

When we followed up by asking if he worried about the future of his community as it became more and more connected his answer took us off guard, though given what we’d seen already in Laos, perhaps it shouldn’t have. “Oh yes, we are very worried. When the dam is built we will have no choice, we will have to move,” he said. We had come to Khoc Kham to learn about electricity in remote communities; we hadn’t even known a dam was being built in the area.

“We’ve been living here so long, everything is here,” Si Tach continued. “When we move, we will have to start over.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , |

Damming the Nam Khan

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

An aerial view of the Nam Khan river and one of the nearly completed hydropower dams.

We had been driving for an hour on the dusty mountain road when we hit the military checkpoint. As the lone passengers in the back of the songthaew (a flatbed truck fitted with benches) we figured it would be impossible to avoid scrutiny and we certain that this would be turned back at any moment. With the media’s widespread – and overwhelmingly negative – coverage of Laos’ Thai-financed Xayaburi dam, we thought that we, as camera toting foreigners, would be less than welcome at the dam construction sites along the Nam Khan river.

To our surprise, however, the soldiers on duty barely gave us a second glance, and looked more bored than suspicious as they waved us through.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

We had come to the Nam Khan to further investigate the human impacts of Laos’ hydropower dams after visiting the nation’s first ever damming project on the Nam Ngum river. The people we’d spoken to there had mixed opinions about the dam’s enormous reservoir (known locally as the Laos Sea) that had flooded much of the area when it was finished in the 1980’s. But it had been more than 30 years since the project had been completed and people had had decades to adjust to the change. We wanted to speak to people who were on the front lines of the nation’s current damming rush.

Voices of the Displaced

A day before our drive into the mountainous valley surrounding the Nam Khan, we had visited one of the main relocation camps for those displaced by the series of dams on the river. Before we saw the dams themselves and spoke to those who were facing eviction from there homes because of them, we wanted to have a clear idea of where these people were being asked to go.

The Samaky Sai, or "United Village", relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

The Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, relocation camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams.

The Samaky Sai camp, located just outside the village of Pak Hanh, looked artificial in every way. The houses were carbon copies of each other, and clearly built as cheaply as possible; cracks sliced through many of the concrete walls and the roads were uneven and dusty.

“The old place was better,” a 28-year-old mother of 5 named Pich told us when we stopped to speak to her on the front steps of the cookie cutter home she had been issued by Sinohydro, the Chinese state-owned firm overseeing the dams construction.  “But we didn’t have a choice.”

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A family sits in front of their alloted home in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Pich, like many of the other occupants of Samaky Sai, had come from a small and remote mountain village further up the Nam Khan where her family had farmed rice. While life in the village was far from easy, Pich told us, and lacked access to modern amenities like electricity and plumbing, essential items such as food and firewood had been abundant and cheap. A barter economy allowed her to trade rice for whatever her family couldn’t grow on their own, and a walk into the jungle would usually provide fresh coconuts or bananas. Cash was used rarely, and typically only for speciality items that had to be brought in from the city.

That all changed when her family moved to Samaky Sai, Pich said: “Over there [in the village] we didn’t need money. But now we need it for everything.” When her family was compelled to leave the village it never occurred to them that they would need cash for nearly everything, and they had no way to earn it. Samaky Sai was too small to provide each family enough space to farm commercially, and virtually nothing would have grown in the hard shale anyways.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.  The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp sit in front of their homes in the early morning.

Each person we spoke to throughout the day shared similar stories. Their transition into a cash-based economy meant that their traditional communal farming practices were no longer able to meet their basic needs. They needed jobs. And around Samaky Sai, there was only one real employer.

“I work as a construction worker on the dam, earning 60 000 kip ($7.25 US) per day,” a young man named Muoi told us. Dressed in a set of blue coveralls and a hardhat, Muoi, like the majority of men in the camp, was preparing to head to work where he would help build the dam that would eventually destroy his childhood home.

As outsiders the idea seemed perverse, but Muoi was quick to point out that he actually preferred life in Samaky Sai in some ways. “It is more comfortable here because we have a big house and electricity,” he said, but then continued “but it is different. We have to work every day and food is very expensive. Either way I can’t go back because the authorities say that we have to stay here.”

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village - a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Workers employed by Sinohydro leave Samaky Sai, or United Village – a relocation site for Laos people displaced by the construction of hyrdopower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro.

Chanh, a 35-year-old resident of Samaky Sai also employed as a labourer on the dam site, shared Muoi’s preference for the modern conveniences their new home provided, but lamented the loss of free time: “The Chinese never stop working, sometimes we start at 7 a.m. and don’t stop until 7 p.m.”

While working a 12 hour shift was by no means uncommon in the world, Chanh explained that the disappearance of their cultural traditions was more damaging than the loss of leisure time. “Every year in the village we used to have a feast to celebrate the new year,” Chanh remembered, “but we had to cancel it last year [after we moved to the camp] because no one could afford the cost of the food. That’s the first time we have ever done this since I was a boy.”

Residents of Samaky Sai, or "United Village", walk along on e of the camp's main roads. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Residents of Samaky Sai, or “United Village”, walk along on e of the camp’s main roads.

After walking through the camp and talking with Samaky Sai residents for several hours, the stories were essentially all the same. 62-year-old broom maker Chan Souk told us how her initial excitement at the prospect of living in a modern house quickly gave way to the realization that their life was forever altered. “When they first showed us the new houses, we all said ‘wow’, but after a few months we realized there was no food. Here we need money for everything, but in the village we could get whatever we needed from the jungle. It is easier here in some ways because of the electricity, but if we could get power in the village, I would go back.”

But with the Nam Khan dam nearly completed, Chan Souk knew she would never go back.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp. The camp is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

A woman carries a basket of vegetables to sell in the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp.

Just a few hundred metres behind Samaky Sai was the village of Don Mo, and before leaving the relocation site we wandered over to ask villagers how they felt about the camp. In contrast to Samaky Sai, Don Mo was not a planned camp but a village that had grown organically over generations. There we met 60-year-old pig farmer Phanh Boun Na Phon, and asked if he would be willing to leave his 50-odd piglets for one of the newer houses. He answered with a laugh, but also with decisiveness: “The space there is not enough. The houses are so close together I wouldn’t even have space to park my bike, never mind my pigs,” he said. “I don’t want to live like those people. I have everything I need here.”

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 50, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.  While just a few hundred metres away from the Samaky Sai (United Village) relocation camp, Don Mo has abundant farmland and the quality of life is vastly superior to that in the camp. Samaky Sai is home to hundreds of families displaced by the construction of hydropower dams. Most of the residents used to be farmers or fishermen in remote mountain villages, but since arriving in Samaky Sai have found few employment opportunities other than Sinohydro - the company responsible for their displacement.

Phanh Boun Na Phon, 60, tends to his livestock in the village of Don Mo.

 

Only the Goats Remain

Back in the mountains, our songthaew bounced along the mountain road as we passed the build sites for the Nam Kham 1 and 2 dams. The scale of the projects was immense, and it was hard not be impressed by the feat of engineering such massive structures in so remote a location despite knowing the human costs involved.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam. Three Chinese-owned dams are slated for the Nam Kong river, and they will collectively innundate more than 1500 km of land, displacing thousands of residents.

The construction site of the Nam Kong 1 hydropower dam.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers drive through the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

Chinese construction workers on the site of the Nam Kong 2 dam.

 

 

 

Workers scurried along scaffolding, looking more like insects than people from so far away, and concussions thudded into our chests as pieces of the mountains were blown away with explosives. Trucks full of workers, presumably being shuttled between their base camp and the construction zones for a shift change, passed us periodically and waved enthusiastically as they called out in greeting. Visitors were not common, we supposed.

After nearly two hours, we arrived at the third and final dam on the Nam Khan river. Still unsure of whether or not we were allowed to be in the area, we jumped out of the truck and made our way towards the top of the structure. A lone security post overlooked the area, and the guard watched us carefully as we approached. With each step closer to the top, we were sure he would start shouting for us to leave, but as soon as we set foot on the expanse of concrete stretching across the valley he stepped out of his hut and yelled “Hello!” in cheerful if heavily accented English.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction. Once completed, the 3 proposed dams on the Nam Kong river will innundate around 1500 km of land, displacing thousands.

A Chinese security guard watches over the top of the Nam Kong 2 dam, which is still under construction.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we only loitered for a few minutes to take in the sheer scope of the project before heading back towards Pak Hanh. On the way we stopped at the tiny village of Khone Wai after catching a glimpse of movement in what looked to be an otherwise abandoned community.

Perched on a small mountain side shelf, Khone Wai was situated between dams 2 and 3 on the Nam Khan – placing it squarely in the path of the future reservoir. The majority of houses were empty and looked long-since abandoned, apart from a few that still had laundry hanging from the front porches. At first we seemed alone apart from a few small herds of goats, but eventually a middle-aged man appeared to greet us.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam's resevoir. Once completed, the area will be submerged in water. Most of the villagers have already abandoned their homes, with a few returning each day to tend to the livestock left behind.

A village lies below the level of the Nam Kong 1 dam’s resevoir.

“Everyone is gone,” he told us, “they have all been moved for when the dam is finished [in a few months]. Only the animals are left, and we come to look after them.” 50-years-old and weathered from decades of farming, he politely declined to tell us his name but explained that he would soon be selling the goats and moving permanently to Samaky Sai.

“Yes we are sad to leave, but we have no choice,” he said. “But I am excited to have a new house.”

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam's resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

Boys squat in an abandoned village near the Nam Kong 1 dam. The village will be flooded by the dam’s resevoir once completed, and the villagers have evactuated their homes. They return daily to tend to the livestock they have left behind.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

The Laos Sea

A fishing boat races across the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A fishing boat races across the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam ahead of a rain storm. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed “The Laos Sea” by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne as well as a fishing ground for locals.

The first time we laid eyes on the Laos Sea, it was hard to process that the vast expanse of turquoise water we were looking at was man made. As the only landlocked country in southeast Asia, Laos was not supposed to have a sea.

We’d come to the town of Thalat via Vientiane by way of a torturous overnight sleeper bus. For budgetary reasons, Gareth and I had shared a bed that might have been reasonably comfortable for an average sized Laotian, but with both of us standing over 6 feet tall and being fairly broad in the shoulder we battled constantly for space. And each time the bus broke down – which it did 5 times during the night – the air-conditioning system would shut off, making that battle an especially sweaty one. By the time we pulled into the station, 18 hours later, we were both furious with each other in that strange way that happens when neither person has actually done anything wrong and both parties know they have no valid reason to be angry.

All was forgotten after a shower and a coffee, however, and an hour later we were already laughing at the ridiculousness of the journey. We had endured such a long drive in order to skip over roughly 700 km of southern Laos that was, while certainly beautiful, not what we had come to Laos to investigate.

Building a Sea

In the late 1950’s, Laos was in the midst of an energy crisis; they simply did not have enough electricity to meet their national needs. Less than a decade after achieving independence, and poverty stricken as it was with an unproductive economy the nation had few options at its disposal. In the words of a RAND Corporation report from the period, Laos was “hardly a nation except in the legal sense.” The answer, it seemed, was hydropower.

An aerial view of the Nam Ngum hydropower dam, the first built in the nation that now wants to transform itself into the "battery of Southeast Asia"

An aerial view of the Nam Ngum hydropower dam, the first built in the nation that now wants to transform itself into the “battery of Southeast Asia”

Seeking to turn Laos into a stopgap between the rising communist states of North Vietnam and China, a group of 10 nations, with the U.S. at the forefront, donated the nearly $100 million necessary to build the country’s first hydroelectric dam. Situated on the Nam Ngum river, one of the Mekong’s major tributaries and along which nearly 1 million people live today, the reservoir created by the dam when it was completed in 1984 became the largest body of water in all of Laos. With a surface area of 400 square kilometres it was substantially larger than any of the country’s natural lakes, earning it the colloquial nickname of the Laos Sea.

The dam itself, a squat wall of grey concrete, was nothing much to look at, but the surrounding area was more like a tourist attraction than a restricted power plant. Where we had expected security checkpoints and barbed wire fencing, grass-covered parks and paved walkways invited visitors to stand near the dam’s base and take photos.

But when we circled behind the dam to first set eyes on the reservoir, we were surprised by just how beautiful it was. It looked more like the Caribbean than an industrial side effect, and its surface was dotted with idyllic looking micro islands, complete with coconut palms and sandy beaches.

Children jump into the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Children jump into the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam.

Floating party barges dot the resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam's resevoir. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

Floating party barges dot the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir.

The almost artificially blue surface was dotted with party barges that crisscrossed the calm water, dropping vacationers on uninhabited islands to enjoy a swim and a picnic. Even from high in the hills overlooking the reservoir we could hear their sound systems pumping out local rock ballads.

Expensive SUVs were parked throughout the village of Baan Thaxan, the small community that served as the main jump off point for the wealthy weekenders coming mainly from the capital, Vientiane. $100 per night boutique hotels with blinding white walls and sparkling glass facades jutted out from the mountainsides, no doubt providing lovely sunset views for its guests.

Local tourists disembark from a tour boat on the banks of the Nam Ngum dam reservoir.  The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast reservoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

Local tourists disembark from a tour boat on the banks of the Nam Ngum dam reservoir.

Despite the picture postcard surroundings, however, we knew that there was an underlying conflict of interest. As nice as the hotels must have been for those coming for a weekend of sun and relaxation, they stood in glaring contrast to the rest of Baan Thaxan which was made up mostly of tin-roofed shacks and wooden fishing boats. Whenever development of that nature took place, we knew, someone was usually on the wrong end of progress.

When the Water Rose

“My village used to be surrounded by rice fields,” 50-year-old Mai Boun Ya Vong told us, “but it was turned into an island by the dam.” We met Vong in the village of Baan Thaxan as he was unloading his day’s catch of fish and he took a short break from his work to talk with us. He didn’t seem angry or resentful, rather he spoke like someone explaining unchangeable universal truths.

A man bathes in the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne.

A man bathes in the reservoir of the Nam Ngum dam.

A mother protects her young son from the afternoon sun in the village of Baan Thaxan.

A mother protects her young son from the afternoon sun in the village of Baan Thaxan.

Despite the fact that his family had found itself unexpectedly living on an island, for a time they prospered. Many of the fish that had lived in the Nam Ngum river also flourished in the reservoir and their community was well placed to catch them. In fact the population expanded as more and more people moved to the island, which had become one of the most productive fisheries in the area – though at the expense of the river itself, which had been badly damaged ecologically. While some people still fished in the river, Vong told us, most shifted their activities to the reservoir.

This rapid growth turned out to be the village’s demise, as the government did not like the idea of a large population in a remote and relatively inaccessible area that they could not effectively monitor or control. Eventually officials visited to say they it was unsafe for people to live without electricity – somewhat ironically as the nation’s largest electricity generator was being built less than a kilometre away – and told them they must prepare to relocate.

Workers at a boat yard along the banks of the Nam Ngum dam's reservoir near Thalat, Laos. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Workers at a boat yard along the banks of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir near Thalat, Laos.

The government resettlement area, however, was away from the water and so therefore badly placed for the needs of a fishing family, and Vong’s father rejected the deal. They had to abandon their home and buy a new plot of land in Baan Thaxan, which was far more developed in terms of infrastructure, but also made for more difficult fishing.

“Life here is different,” Vong told us. “There we had lots of fish and life was easy, but there was no electricity or roads. Now we have power and roads, but it’s much harder to make money [from fishing].”

When we asked Vong which he preferred, he had no decisive answer. “I don’t know which is better. They’re just different.” His wife, however, had no such indecision. For her, an island life of abundant fish was the better choice and she said she would immediately return if given the choice.

A boat captain checks on his sleeping son as he drives across the resevoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

A boat captain checks on his sleeping son as he drives across the reservoir formed by the Nam Ngum dam.

Despite the government’s policy about living on the islands of the reservoir, Vong told us that a few people still had homes on some of them. Wanting to see for ourselves, we chartered a boat and headed out on the sea. After an hour of motoring we spotted a cluster of small wooden huts on one of the sea’s central islands, tucked into a small inlet hidden from view of the shore.

Si Phan, a 62-year-old fisherman who split his time between the island and a small house in Thalat, was the only person on the beach when we jumped off the boat. When we asked him the same question as we’d posed to Vong, he answered quickly: “If I had to choose between only living here or my house in Thalat, I would live here. There are no loud parties and I can fish easily. If you live in the city you always have to go markets and restaurants to get what you need, but here I have everything, like fish and vegetables. I even have enough power from solar panels to watch TV at night.”

Si Phan, 62, is a fisherman who lives part time on an island in the middle of the Nam Ngum dam's reservoir. While he also owns a home in the nearby town of Thalat, he spends much of his time fishing in the enormous resevoir despite dwindling fish stocks. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Si Phan, 62, is a fisherman who lives part time on an island in the middle of the Nam Ngum dam’s reservoir. While he also owns a home in the nearby town of Thalat, he spends much of his time fishing in the enormous resevoir despite dwindling fish stocks.

For locals it seemed as though the Nam Ngum dam was neither entirely good or completely bad. Many of them had lost their homes, but in exchange they had gotten access to modern infrastructure. On one hand the Nam Ngum river had been badly affected and was no longer the productive fishery it once was, but on the other they had gained a sea.

Early morning in the central fish market in the town of Thalat. While some of the catch comes from the Mekong, the majority of local fishermen have left the river to fish in the massive resevoir of the Nam Ngum dam. The dam was the first major hydro power project constructed in Laos and the vast resevoir has been dubbed "The Laos Sea" by many locals. It serves as a vacation destination for wealthy residents of Vientianne, as well as a fishing ground for locals.

Early morning in the central fish market in the town of Thalat.

As the sun began to set the driver of our boat urged us to head back to shore, and so we said farewell to Si Phan. As we left we asked why he had to buy his own solar panels when there was such an abundance of power nearby. “The government says the islands are too difficult to get the lines to,” he responded. To us this seemed odd as Nam Ngum’s electricity was sent hundreds of kilometres away to power the nation’s cities and we figured that “difficult” was a substitute word for low priority.

In parting we asked if he would be able to watch TV that night, and he looked skywards as if trying to remember how much the sun had shone that day.

“Maybe.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , |

Coffee, Kingdoms, and the Peace of Southern Laos

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

A statue of Buddha sits overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

As soon as the heavy cargo truck pulled onto the shoulder of the highway we were immediately swarmed by vendors. They shoved bananas, plastic bags of sticky rice, and barbecued skewers of chicken gizzard through the wooden slats of the truck walls, sometimes receiving a few thousand kip (the name of the Laos currency) in exchange from the hungry commuters.  5 minutes later the truck’s aging ancient engine roared back to life and we were off again, blasting the vendors with exhaust fumes and gravel dust as they turned to meet the next arriving vehicle.

We were on our way to the riverside city of Pakse, the third largest in the country and the capital of the former Kingdom of Champasak. Straddling the confluence of the Mekong and Xe Don rivers, it seemed like a logical destination after leaving the un-tameable rapids of the Khone waterfalls, but as had so often been the case during the making of this journey, we had no real idea of what we would find when we got there.

With a population nearly 100 000, it was a big city by Laos standards and it drew nearly half a million tourists per year; we figured there had to be something there. Yet every time we’d asked a local what we should see or do in Pakse they would think for a moment and then shrug: “It’s pretty, but a little bit boring.”

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

People pray to a large statue of Buddha overlooking the Mekong river in the city of Pakse.

Boring, we figured, was an opinion based on circumstance; what might be boring for a local could be fascinating for us.

Caffeine Plateau

Eager to see what Pakse had to offer we arranged for a small truck to meet us at the unfortunate time of 4:30 a.m. to drive us the 100 kms from the city to the Bolaven plateau. A 1300 metre tall edifice of rock that dominated the surrounding landscape, the plateau was once a place of immense suffering as one of the most heavily bombed theatres of the Vietnam War, but now was better known for coffee than explosives. Being seriously dedicated coffee drinkers, both Gareth and I were looking forward to pursuing anything that gave us an excuse to drink more of it.

As our vehicle ascended the long, gently graded road that lead to the plateau, our ears popped periodically and we rose further and further into the misty cloud layer that hung over the summit. For the first time that either of us could remember since starting this journey we were not within walking distance of the Mekong or one of its tributaries, and the distance felt strangely unsettling after so many days by the water.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

A worker removes weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Originally cultivated by French farmers during the colonial period from late in the 19th century and running into the middle of the 20th, coffee plantations began to appear on both sides of the road once we reached the plateau’s flat top. More or less at random we stopped at one, passing under tall gates made of an expensive looking hardwood before parking in the visitors area. Polished wood surfaces and metal appliances gleamed in the various reception facilities and it was clear that these plantations were not casual subsistence operations.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing tea and coffee, which have become the biggest industries in the area.

Workers remove weeds from a tea plantation in the Bolaven plateau.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau. The plateau posesses a microclimate that makes it ideal for growing coffee, and it has become the biggest industry in the area.

A young girl sits in a coffee tree on the Bolaven plateau.

As we walked slowly through the plantation grounds, surrounded by coffee trees and squat tea bushes, it seemed odd to find very few people physically working save for a scattering of labourers cleaning debris from between the crop rows. A little confused by the lack of activity, we continued further into the compound until we eventually arrived at a rest area, much smaller and more rustic looking than the modern structures we had seen earlier. A distinguished looking man was the sole patron, sitting alone at a wooden table sipping green tea and smoking a long black cigarette.

Bonjour,” he said in way of greeting as we approached and I scrambled to switch into French, which I hadn’t meaningfully used since leaving university. Pablo, a native French speaker, had returned to Phnom Penh before reaching the Cambodia-Laos border to sort through dozens of hours of video he’d recorded and Gareth, though fluent in multiple languages, spoke barely a word. My rusty language skills would have to suffice.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

Inpong Sananikone stands in front of a one hundred year old coffee tree on his organic plantation on the Bolaven plateau. A Laos-born French citizen, his plantation produces high quality tea and coffee for export around the world.

“Welcome to my plantation, please join me.” His French was smooth and his accent non-existent. “Would you like a coffee?” He waived to a waiter when we accepted, and he gestured for us to sit down.

His name was Inpong Sananikone, a Laos native who had emigrated to France as a young man before returning to Laos in retirement to buy an existing plantation and reform it according to his own principles. “When I started this business I decided on three rules: It has to be welcoming, clean, and organic,” he said, using simple French vocabulary thankfully within my ability to understand.

As the drinks arrived, we asked about the absence of workers in the fields. “It’s not the season,” he said, “Come back in a few months and you can see the work.” Sliding the small cups of steaming coffee towards and after taking an appreciative sip of his own, he stared thoughtfully at his glass before musing “I had coffee with the French Prime Minister last year. It cost 15 euros and it was not as good as this.”

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Coffee beans on a tree on the Bolaven plateau outside Pakse.

Uncertain of how to respond to such an unusual statement, we said nothing and instead sat quietly sipping our drinks. Obviously he had accomplished a great deal during his decades in France if he was meeting with the Prime Minster, but my language skills had already been stretched to the breaking point and I didn’t have the words to question him much further.

It wasn’t until the glasses were nearly empty that we noticed something was off. First my hands began to shake, first only a little, but shortly afterwards degenerating into an uncontrollable vibration. Sweat formed on my forehead and I could feel my heart pumping at close to twice its normal speed. Fearing that I could be on the verge of a heart attack, I looked over at Gareth for reassurance. His face was drained of colour.

“Strong coffee is the secret to staying young,” Inpong said, possibly noticing our jitters. “I put 7 grams of coffee into every cup of water.” Even as habitually heavy coffee drinkers, we were both shocked by the power of the drink. As we stared at him in disbelief, he asked rhetorically “Well, did you want to drink water, or did you want to drink coffee?”

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

A waterfall on the Bolaven plateau.

The Ghosts of Empire

After the extremely unpleasant caffeine high of the Bolaven plateau, we resolved to stay closer to the water for our remaining time in Pakse. After several days we saw what the locals had been talking about when they said that the city was “pretty, but a little bit boring,” – though for us boring was the wrong choice of word. There was nothing boring about the area; it was both beautiful and welcoming, but things around Pakse just moved at a slower pace.

Rather than fight against the area’s nature, trying to force interesting river-related stories to present themselves to us, we surrendered to the casual rhythm of life in southern Laos and spent several days taking in the area.

We visited the ancient temples of Wat Phu, constructed by the same Khmer Empire that  built the world-famous Angkor Wat complex in the jungles outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. The aesthetic similarities were striking, and compared to the constant crowds and inflated prices of the far more heavily touristed temples in Cambodia, we had Wat Phu entirely to ourselves for several hours.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The entrance pathway to Wat Phu, an abandoned Angkorian temple that predates Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Later we chartered a boat to the silk producing island of Don Kho, getting back on the the Mekong for the first time in several days. Again, rather than aggressively hunt for river-related social stories to tell we simply walked across the island, talking to people we met from small families digging for edible grubs to young men and women working silk looms under the shade of stilted houses.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Villagers dig under piles of buffalo feces for small edible insects on the island of Don Kho.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Peah, 25, is a silk weaver on the island of Don Kho. The island, near the city of Pakse, is home to a cottage silk weaving industry that supplements the income of residents. Peah has been weaving silk for 10 years.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

Silk weavers on the island of Don Kho, near Pakse.

In many ways our time in Pakse was like a holiday within the larger journey. Initially we felt frustrated by the lack of activity, having placed a huge amount of pressure on ourselves thought the trip to find and visually document the Mekong’s stories. Yet once we accepted Pakse for what it was, we were able to step back and enjoy the beauty and history of Laos’ sparsely populated south.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

Monks make their morning round to collect alms from the villagers on the island of Don Kho.

But all vacations must come to an end, and both Gareth and I were eager to get back to work. Most people we’d talked to in Pakse said that the rest of southern Laos would be much the same as what we’d seen in the last days, so we boarded a torturous 18 hour overnight bus and headed north to start investigating what is arguably the most controversial form development on the Mekong – Laos’ hydropower dams.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , , , |

The Mighty Falls of Laos

The Khone Phapheng waterfalls as seen from the air. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

The Khone Phapheng waterfalls as seen from the air. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

We could feel the water before we could see it. The deep bass rumbling of the expansive Khone falls was experienced not so much as a sound, but rather a pervasive sensation in the stomach that was both subtle and impossible to ignore at the same time.

We had crossed the border from Cambodia into Laos without incident. In fact, the customs checkpoint was so lightly used and understaffed that we probably could have walked into the country without showing our passports. Extravagant Khmer-style administrative buildings stood empty and unused, left to quietly rot in the humidity of the jungle. A pack of friendly stray dogs lazed in the no man’s land between the two nations, significantly outnumbering the immigration personnel.

Less than 20km away was Nakasang, a small riverside town that served as the main jumping off point for travellers visiting the Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) chain, as well as the main point of access to the Khone falls. We had come to explore the waterfalls and surrounding area partially because of their obvious visual appeal, but more importantly because of what they represented in terms of the Mekong’s past and future.

A young boy balances on a rock about the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A young boy balances on a rock about the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

When the team of French explorers led by Ernest Doudard de Lagrée left Cambodia in 1866 with the mission of surveying the length of the Mekong – which was at that point a mostly blank and unknown space on the map for Europeans – their primary aim was to establish whether or not the river could be used as a trade artery to connect the French colonies in Indochina to the silks and riches of China. The journey was fuelled purely by imperial economic ambitions, as evidenced (in comically stereotypical French style) by the fact that the small team carried just six boxes of scientific instruments with them compared to more than 700 litres of wine and several hundred litres of brandy.

Though the team would go on to be the first Europeans to navigate the entirety of the Mekong, their goal of establishing a trade route to China was thwarted early on by the Khone falls, a mighty chain of rapids that stretch along nearly 10km of the river. While even today, a century and a half later, the Khone falls hamper the Mekong’s utility as an international trade highway, the area is once again in the crosshairs of economic development.

Untamed, For Now

Though the Khone falls dominated the landscape immediately south of the 4000 Islands, actually getting to them was somewhat problematic. An official tourist observation platform provided a lovely panoramic view, but was far removed from the fisherman we could see casting his net into the churning water below.

A fisherman walks across the rocks above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A fisherman walks across the rocks above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

After slipping around a set of heavy wooden guardrails, we were able to scramble down a narrow dirt path and onto the wet rocks that defined the eastern periphery of the Khnone Falls. In the wet season, with river levels at their peak, it would not have been possible to stand where we were. I had seen photographs of the area taken by colleagues shortly after the monsoon rains that showed the area as an uninterrupted mass of churning water, but at the tail end of an unusually dry summer, the rapids – while still impressively wild – were more subdued.

Though it would have been ideal to see the cascading water in its most dramatic state, the reduced flow allowed us to pick our way along the stony lip of the falls towards the fishermen. Had the falls been moving at full force, the only means of navigating across would have been a pair of rusted steel cables suspended limply between wooden posts that had been driven into the rocky banks at some unknown point in the past. Considering Gareth was nursing severely bruised ribs and I was wearing a pair of extremely cheap rubber sports sandals, walking on solid stone was the far safer option.

The single fisherman working this section of the falls dipped in and out of sight as he descended and reemerged from craggy valleys carved by millennia of fast flowing water. Well built and sure footed on the slippery rocks, he looked like consummate professional river fisherman. For nearly an hour we followed him as he cast, checked, and recast his hand net into the deep pools that pockmarked the area. He seemed completely unconcerned with our presence, and other than a polite smile, barely acknowledged we were there. Once the soft dawn light began to transition into the harsher glare of mid morning we asked our translator, Noy, to join us and facilitate conversation.

A man casts his fishing net into a pool of water above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A man casts his fishing net into a pool of water above the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

As Noy made his way towards I began to mentally formulate a list of questions I wanted to ask about the current state of fish stocks in the area, how concerned he was about the multitude of hydropower dams slated for construction along the Mekong in Laos, and what he thought about his children’s futures as Khone fishermen. But these ideas of a deep conversation on the ecological state of the river were brushed aside almost at once by the realities of the modern world.

“He isn’t actually a fisherman,” Noy translated for us, “he only does this to get some extra food when he has a break from work.”

When asked what his real job was, Noy and the bemused young man went back and forth for a few minutes before Noy turned to us with an embarrassed grin.

“He is a photographer. He takes pictures of the tourists who visit the waterfalls.”

Low Season, High Effort

After laughing off our own naivety, we left the tourist viewpoint and headed back towards Nakasang where we chartered a small boat to take us to the opposite bank of the Mekong, hoping to find a more authentic glimpse at life next to the Khone falls. Several locals warned us that it was low season for fishermen and it would be nearly impossible to reach the area where they worked at this time of the year laden with camera gear as we were, but we decided to try anyways.

A boat sits beached on tree roots in a a tributary of the Mekong river directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

A boat sits beached on tree roots in a a tributary of the Mekong river directly upriver from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

Predictably, the locals were right. It took several hours of fording chest-deep streams and bushwhacking along overgrown jungle paths before we found a single fisherman. Thin yet incredibly strong looking, Vong was in his 40’s and was followed by two young sons who watched him cast his net with keen interest.

Vong confirmed what we had been told earlier – this was low season, and his catches were small. For a few minutes we tried to press him on big-picture issues such as dam projects, but he seemed either unwilling or simply unable to comment, and so we let him be and joined his sons on a large boulder to watch their father expertly working in the churning water.

Vong pulls his net from the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls as his young sons look on. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Vong pulls his net from the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls as his young sons look on.

Vong casts his net into the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.]

Vong casts his net into the turbulent water below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

After coming up empty on a few casts of his hand net from the river bank, Vong lowered himself into the swift currents and began hauling himself hand over hand along a lone wire that stretched from the Mekong’s western bank to a rocky island that stood in the middle of the river. It would have been impossible for Gareth or I to follow him while keeping our cameras dry, and truth be told I’m not sure if we possessed the brute strength, despite each being at least 20kg heavier and a foot taller than the wiry fisherman.

Vong pulls himself through the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls along a thin cable in order to reach the best fishing spots. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Vong pulls himself through the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls along a thin cable in order to reach the best fishing spots.

Long, a Mekong river fisherman displays the only fish he was able to catch in two hours of fishing the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls. The Khone Falls stretch the breadth of the Mekong river and prevent it from acting as a commercially viable transportation route.

Long, a Mekong river fisherman displays the only fish he was able to catch in two hours of fishing the rapids below the Khone Phapheng waterfalls.

His sons quickly lost interest in us and so for most of the next hour our motley group sat in silence, watching Vong’s distant form cast and recast his net. When he returned with the last of the day’s light, he had a caught just three small fish, the biggest of which was smaller than the average sized computer mouse. Considering how much physical effort it had taken for him to get this tiny catch, it seemed impossible that they would provide a surplus of calories. But Vong seemed satisfied with the days work and led his sons away over the rocks before melting into the dense jungle beyond.

Though we had learned virtually nothing about the state of the Mekong in Laos in terms of literal facts or eyewitness accounts, we had nevertheless gained a fleeting impression of a country far less developed than what we had seen in Vietnam and even Cambodia – though as we would find out over the coming weeks, the health of the Mekong and the greater natural environment was far from perfect in this land locked nation.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, Laos, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , |

Culture, Infighting, and an Uncertain Future

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

Bunong farmers drive their tractor through a herd of cows in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

Since visiting Koh Sralay, a community located downstream of the dam that faced reduced fishing prospects which would quite possibly derail their family livelihoods, we wanted to learn about the challenges ahead for people living upstream, on the site of the dam’s future reservoir. With the addition of Meach Mean, our crew size had grown to six (including a driver and translator), and we packed ourselves into the back seat of an aging Toyota Camry for a two hour drive to the remote village of Kbal Romeas.

As we neared the village, the roads became increasingly treacherous and were dotted with deep mud holes from recent rains. Eventually the two-wheel drive car could go no further with such a heavy load of passengers and the driver ordered us out. Meach called ahead to the village and arranged for a small fleet of motorcycles to drive out and shuttle us the last few kilometres.

Kbal Romeas was home to 136 families of Bunong, an ethnic minority tribe who have inhabited the area northeast of Steung Treng for around 2000 years. Though Buddhism was making inroads in Bunong communities, they were predominately animists who believed in living in harmony with nature, and who fed themselves almost entirely from natural resources. The only road leading to the village was unpaved, and the locals owned no cars. Bunong do not believe in fencing in their domesticated animals, instead trusting that their herds will make their way home each night. Piglets ran openly through the community, competing with chickens for mangos that fall from the trees above. Some Bunong do not speak fluent Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. These were the people who had the most to lose if Sesan II was built.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong woman harvests vegetables from her garden.

“This whole area will be 10 metres underwater,” Meach told us upon entering the village. “36 000 hectares will disappear during the first rainy season after the dam is finished.” As the proposed date of completion for Sesan II is 2017, there was not much time left.

The Red-Blue Divide

“There are three reasons I am against the dam,” 29-year-old Dam Samnang told us (he spoke no English and so was thankfully spared from the unfortunate irony presented by his name). “It provides no direct benefits to people in this community, it will destroy all our houses, and it will ruin the river system so that we can never come back.” Though he spoke simply, his words were loaded with emotion.

Samnang went on to describe his feelings of frustration over the community’s lack of power to protect their own lands, something he attributed partially to a national ambivalence towards minority tribes like the Bunong. “Some Cambodians don’t understand our beliefs,” he explained. “Our ancestors are buried here and if they flood the area we will not be able to come back and visit them. I can’t put a [monetary] value on graves, but if the Prime Minister’s family graves have value, then why don’t ours?”

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family sits in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

A Bunong family in Kbla Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in Kbal Romeas village, northeastern Cambodia.

With so much history and culture at stake, it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that the Bunong  would unanimously oppose the dam. But as we learned over the course of our visit, the community had been the target of a systematic divide-and-conquer campaign. Samnang told us how even his most basic attempts at mobilizing his community had been met with fierce opposition, culminating with a visit from the local authorities who formally banned them from signing petitions or hosting environmentally related gatherings. What legal basis they had for doing so were unclear to Samnang, and he suspected that they had no way of enforcing what they said. More likely, he thought, it was a thinly veiled attempt to intimidate the villagers and sew divisions within the community.

Perhaps the most important factor in splitting the community was the resettlement package on offer from the company that owned Sesan II – Sinohydro Resources. A wide variety of factors decided the amount on offer for those willing to relocate, but the basic premise was simple: go away and receive money, land, or a new house – in some cases all three.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The blue paint indicates that the family has rejected the resettlement package offered by the Chinese dam builders. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The community is self sustaining, and does not need to purchase any food, other than salt and spices. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family stands in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas.

For many, including Samnang and his family, no amount of money would cause them to peaceably abandon their home, but for those in the village whose economic situation was desperate, the package was harder to turn down.

Widows and the extremely impoverished were some the most susceptible to Sinohydro’s offers, Meach Mean told us, and more than a third of the community had already agreed to be relocated. “A few years ago everyone rejected the deal,” Meach explained, “but when [the authorities and company representatives] kept coming back, more and more accepted. Poverty forces them to accept.”

Once a family had accepted, a sign was spray painted in red on the front of their house, proclaiming their decision publicly. In response, those who remained adamantly opposed painted “NOLS2DAM” (No Lower Sesan II Dam) on their own homes, making it possible to walk along the village’s central road and know at a glance who was staying and who was going. A handful of families, including Samnang’s, had gone one step further, using green paint to write “we will fight until we die, we will not leave” in Khmer script.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro - the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam - and will vacate their property. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong family in front of their house in the village of Kbal Romeas. The red markings on their house indicate the family has agreed to the compensation package offered by Sino Hydro – the Chinese firm building the Sesan II dam – and will vacate their property.

Progress at What Cost?

As we prepared to leave Kbal Romeas, our last destination on the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, we couldn’t help but fear the worst. Despite strong voices of opposition from people like Samnang and Meach Mean, the wheels of development seemed to be inexorably turning in Cambodia, regardless of the impacts on those living from nature in traditional ways.

Being outsiders, it was not our place to decide what developmental policies are best suited to improving the quality of life for Cambodians, but it was difficult to stomach the thought that a cheaper electricity bill was worth destroying a two thousand-year-old culture.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community.

A Bunong man checks his fishing nets for holes before fishing on the Sesan river.

“I’m worried for my parents and I’m worried for my kids,” Samnang had said in one of our last conversations. “This dam will be a disaster for us; our destiny is in trouble. They say they want to develop Cambodia, so why do they destroy our homes?”

Our time with the Bunong brought the realities of modern progress to the forefront of our consciousness. Most people living in modern urban environments have come to expect a certain level of comfort, and life in major cities would indeed be difficult without the conveniences electricity brings – air conditioning, refrigeration, and cell phones, for example. In all but the most extreme cases, even those living below the poverty line make use of power in one way or the other, and you would be hard pressed to find a city-dweller anywhere on earth who would not gladly welcome a cheaper electricity bill. But the sources of those luxuries often remain out of sight, far away from the bright lights of the cities in places like the one we had just come from; someone or something, whether an entire Bunong village or an uncommon species of fish, would usually suffer to keep those lights running affordably.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas. The Bunong are an ethnic minority tribe who inhabit parts of northeastern Cambodia, and rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their community. The Sesan II dam, if built, will displace multiple minority tribes, as well as substantially impact their ability to farm and fish. The community is currently divided; roughly half the villagers have accepted a resettlement compensation package, while the other half staunchly refuses to leave their land.

A Bunong fisherman prepares to fish on the Sesan river near the village of Kbal Romeas.

When would the cost become too high, we wondered? At what point would the social or environmental costs become too great to justify the benefits? And who would be responsible for making those decisions?

These were the questions in our minds as we prepared to say goodby to Cambodia for the time being and head towards the border of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to begin the third leg of A River’s Tail.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Also posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Tagged , , , , , , , |